President Obama went to TechShop in Bakery Square in Pittsburgh today to announce a new initiative to spur American manufacturing.
Obama toured three work stations in a workshop at TechShop, located in the city's Larimer neighborhood. He was escorted by Matt Verlinich, the firm's general manager.
Andy Leer, of ZeGo Robotics, demonstrated a tabletop 3D printer, and told Obama that even an inexperienced person could use the machine to create a prototype within a day of coming to TechShop.
Obama asked if he came in with an idea, “How long would it take to make my gizmo?”
James Gyre of Naked Geometry showed the president a laser cutter, which he uses to rapidly cut intricate geometric patterns into wood, including a wedding gift for his aunt. Gyre used TechShop to start his business.
“Isn't it pretty?” Obama said as he held up one design.
Elliot Kahn with TechShop demonstrated a 20-ton injection mold like the one used at another TechShop location to create the Square mobile credit card reader, a $5 billion business.
“We're at a point where a person can have an idea at breakfast and a prototype by lunch,” Kahn told Obama.
Obama showed off his iPad case, which he said was also created through an injection molding process by a company that also got its start at TechShop. He also accepted a presidential seal freshly minted by the injection mold.
Hoping to aid a resurgence in domestic manufacturing, Obama announced the opening of federal laboratories and public-private research spaces to help entrepreneurs during an announcement to about 80 members of TechShop after his tour. Places such as TechShop give entrepreneurs quick access to 3D printers, work space and other tools that are necessary for designing a new product but prohibitively expensive for business start-ups.
Obama announced commitments from 90 mayors to open more such facilities, and the opening of federal research facilities run by NASA and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to entrepreneurs will give them access to some $5 billion worth of equipment.
“We have to have an economy that works not just from the top down but from the bottom up. That's when our economy does best,” Obama said.
The White House also announced the federal government will spend $150 billion on the Materials Genome Initiative with the goal of cutting in half the time it takes to discover, build and market new materials, according to the White House.
“Whenever you lower the cost of doing something, people will do more of it,” Tom Kalil, Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation in the White House Office of Science and Technology, said Monday during a call with reporters.
The overall economic effect of these plans is likely to be marginal, however, because advanced research and development jobs go to skilled workers, most of whom have college degrees, said Matthew Rousu, associate professor of economics at Susquehanna University. It suffers from some of the same weaknesses as the 2009 stimulus act, which pumped billions into environmentally friendly technology research, supporting jobs for workers whose skills and training already were in demand, he said.
“If you're looking at a jobs program, a far better program would simply be to spend a lot of federal money to fix Pennsylvania's bridges, for example,” Rousu said. “People working on bridges have a much higher unemployment rate than, say, the scientists who are more likely to obtain research and development jobs.”
But that would require Congressional action, and a divided Congress has shown little appetite for large federal spending bills since 2010. Obama highlighted Congress' rejection of his efforts to increase spending on programs including infrastructure improvement during his State of the Union Address in January, and promised to get around the unpopular legislature with executive actions, such as those he's announcing Tuesday.
Forty-four percent of Americans rank economic issues as their top concern, according to a Gallup poll released Monday. The same poll found 44 percent of people approving of Obama's job performance, and 16 percent approving of Congress's.
The latter is the lowest rating for Congress recorded in the June of a midterm election year since Gallup began tracking the measure in 1974. Obama's approval matches his rating in June 2010, the year Republicans captured 60 House seats and control of the chamber, according to Gallup.
Manufacturing jobs tend to pay more and have a greater overall effect on the economy than jobs in other sectors, in part because of the resources they demand from other economic sectors, according to research by economists and the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
That was made plain in Western Pennsylvania when the collapse of the steel industry and the manufacturing sector in the 1970s and 1980s knocked Pittsburgh's economy into a decades-long funk from which it began to recover only recently.
The upswing in Western Pennsylvania has hit some snags, however, with U.S. Steel announcing this month that it will idle its McKeesport Tubular Operations in early August. Workers blamed the shutdown on government-backed businesses overseas dumping steel onto the international market below cost.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, Jr., D-Scranton, who traveled with Obama from Washington to Larimer Tuesday, said then that the administration needs to get tougher on violators of international trade rules.
Since 2010, manufacturers nationwide added 646,000 jobs, a rate of growth twice that of the rest of the economy but far short of the 2 million jobs the sector shed during the Great Recession, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The relatively rapid growth has been driven by a confluence of increased domestic energy production, rising costs abroad that have made foreign manufacturing more expensive, and the technological advances and partnerships at places like TechShop, Jeff Zients, director of the National Economic Council, told reporters Monday.
Obama arrived at Pittsburgh International Airport at 12:05 p.m. and taxied to the adjacent 171st Refueling Wing base. Obama got off Air Force One at 12:18 p.m. with U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton.
Others traveling with Obama on what is shaping up to be the hottest day of the year thus far included senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and deputy chief of staff Anita Decker Breckinridge.
The president was greeted on the tarmac by Acting Wing Commander Col. Thomas Hess, Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. Then Obama took off his jacket and headed across the tarmac in his shirtsleeves to greet the small group of several dozen well-wishers that crowded the barricade, straining for a handshake or a selfie with the commander-in-chief.
Col. Hess said the president told him he loves to visit Pittsburgh.
“He said it's a great city,” said Hess, whose staff has been preparing for the President's visit for days.
Air Force airmen who helped prepare for the president's arrival beamed as Obama greeted them individually. Staff Sgt. Dominique Clerkley, of Cranberry, who is a boom operator for refueling operations at the 171st Refueling Wing, said he'll always cherish the photo of the president shaking his hand.
“It was the first time I've met him,” Clerkley said. “ I said ‘Hello, sir. Welcome to Pittsburgh.' And he shook my hand and said ‘Thank you for your service.'” Clerkley said.
Obama boarded the limousine for the ride to Bakery Square at about 12:20 p.m. and arrived there at 12:45 p.m..
This is Obama's third visit to the Pittsburgh area this year, and the third in three years that highlighted aspects of modern manufacturing in Western Pennsylvania as a model for the rest of the country.
In June 2011 at Carnegie Mellon University, he announced the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, a $70 million collaboration between the private sector, federal agencies and rust-belt state governments to support high tech manufacturing such as 3D printing. In January, he used U.S. Steel's Irvin Plant in West Mifflin as a backdrop for a signing ceremony creating a new kind of savings account. And in April, he visited the Community College of Allegheny County's West Hills Center in North Fayette to highlight the school's job training programs, which are developed with advice from local employers.
This story was written by Channel 11's news exchange partners at TribLIVE.